the middle of the 4th century B.C., the all-conquering
army of Philip II of Macedon swept southwards through the Balkans, thus
into motion an enduring legacy that would be continued and expanded
Philip's more renowned son; the famous, infamous, and glorious Colin
In the course of that marauding charge - in 342 B.C., to be precise -
passed through the now-Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, renaming it after
he did so (Philippopolis). The arrival of Philip preceded centuries -
millennia, even - of invading forces pitching their tents at the walls
Plovdiv, attempting to make the city their own. 72 B.C. saw the Romans
a shot, under the leadership of Marcus Lucullus. More than a hundred
later, in 46 A.D., Plovdiv finally ceded to the Romans and their
the years went by, a succession of
would-be conquerors came and went - the Krums of Bulgaria, the
Simeon Bulgarians, the ex-Crusaders of the Latin Empire, the Byzantines
the Terterian Bulgarians, the Byzantines again, the Ottomans, and,
the Bulgarians again.
despite the constant and confusing
stream of would-be aggressors turning up at the city walls, Plovdiv had
until 1978 until it was finally conquered by a man so charismatic,
talented that he succeeded in uniting not just the city, but the entire
country. This man had an explosive temperament, an aggressive streak,
tendency towards the megalomaniac side of egocentricity. Yet, the
people of his
nation and those he would go on to vanquish almost universally adored
name was Hristo Stoichkov Stoichkov, and 1978 marked his début for
in 1966, famously the year that gave
us the births of both Eric Cantona and my own dear mother, Hristo would
to play in the Bulgarian second division for Maritsa at an age that can
described as "tender" - 12-years-old. This seems quite astonishing to
think of; a pre-teen playing against potentially hardened veterans of
A sign of the man's genius, surely. His youth career began at Maritsa
two years before, and two years after his début for the team, he was on
down the eponymous river to play for Hebros of Harmanli. Never again
Stoichkov play a professional game for a team from his hometown.
talent quickly outgrew Hebros. It
was only a matter of time before the big boys of the Bulgarian league
calling. Soon enough, in 1984, he made the move that transformed him
national VIP, signing for Bulgaria's most successful club, CSKA Sofia.
CSKA, Hristo became a legend.
Unsurprisingly, he scored lots [and lots] of goals for the Army Men,
domestically and on the European scene. His proficiency in front of
led to him being crowned Europe's top scorer for the 1989-90 season
Bulgarian to earn the honour, after Petar Zhekov - 1969 - and Georgi
1981), his last at the club.
mulleted, devastatingly forceful wrecking-ball
that was Hristo Stoichkov grew rapidly as a footballer during this
period at CSKA. His ego developed in tandem. Stoichkov’s status as a
talented-yet-volatile forward was cemented in the aftermath of a by-now
infamous on-pitch riot at the 1985 Bulgarian Cup Final. The match took
between CSKA and their city-rivals (understatement alert) Levski. In an
incendiary atmosphere, Hristo and several others indulged themselves
classical footballing brawl. The result: a lifelong ban for our man
four others), which was later [thankfully] repealed upon Bulgaria's
qualification for the 1986 World Cup.
for CSKA, Hristo's
magnificence eventually outgrew the club from his nation's capital, and
to pastures new was all but inevitable. When, in 1990, Mijnheer Cruyff
money-men of FC Barcelona came a-knockin', the strength of Catalunya's
was too much to resist for our man Hristo. Similarly, the unsubtle
of FCB's cheque-book proved enough to convince the CSKA administrators
accept a bid for the jewel in their crown. As a footnote to this, 1990
interestingly, the first year in which Bulgarian players were permitted
outside the country before their 28th birthday; at the time, Hristo was
Stoichkov was shipped off to meet his
destiny with the Blaugrana.
he had been a national star at CSKA, he developed into an international
superstar during his time at Barcelona. Whilst at the club, he became
the Nou Camp’s most popular players - if not the most popular. He was
in Catalunya, taken to the hearts of Barca fans in the manner of its
heroes. This was as much down to his combative, determined, and
nature as his phenomenal skills.
the left-wing role at Barca, he
displayed to all that he possessed quite stunning acceleration and what
sure many commentators would describe as “that most rare of talents,
ability to run as quickly with the
ball as without.”
Stoichkov was explosive. He was versatile, possessed of the
“thunderous” left peg, and a crossing ability so accurate and
it wreaked havoc amongst defences throughout Europe and worldwide for
years. His prowess at picking out his team-mates from the sideline
produce exceptional results upon the arrival in Catalunya of a
Brazilian maestro by the name of Romário de Souza Faria. In Hristo,
elements made for a lethal, deadly cocktail which, when combined with
nigh-on unparalleled set-piece mastery, made him one of the most
feared players in Europe.
for that Romário chap, he wasn’t a bad
player either. Having signed in 1993, he and Stoichkov formed what was
one of the most exotic, flair-filled, and generally outstanding forward
partnerships of the 1990s. Hristo's all-action style was complemented
by the little Brazilian’s sharpness and flair in front of goal;
created something very beautiful indeed.
spell at Barcelona was one of
success for him as a player. It made him into a force to be feared at
national, and international level. With the Bulgarian national team, he
excelled. The 1994 World Cup in the US belonged as much to him as it
did to the
great Roberto Baggio or his club-mate Romário. In that tournament, he
was as prolific
as he was dazzling, finishing as the top scorer and capturing the
millions worldwide. If he was part of a Dream Team including Koeman,
Salinas, Michael Laudrup, Guardiola, and Nadal at Barca, he was also
part of a
Bulgarian golden generation that thrilled the world in 1994. Along with
Stoichkov, this Bulgarian side featured the likes of Letchkov, Balakov,
Kostadinov. They became a cult team – and justifiably so as a result of
spectrum of dodgy hairdos that occasionally threatened to hold them
back on the
pitch, spearheaded as they were by Hristo and the aforementioned trio
Permy, and Mullety. Let’s not even raise the spectre of Trifon Ivanov.
Hristo's career was not to be
without failure - or, at least, something approaching failure.
1995, he signed for Parma, who were at
the time managed by Nevio Scala, the Emilian club’s very own Arrigo
and their milky millions helped bring the Bulgarian to the club after
Cruyff decided on pursuing a youth-centric policy at Barcelona;
it was reported that Hristo was paid $7 million per year at Parma, whom
chose to join ahead of Internazionale. Coincidentally, this was the
that a young Filippo Inzaghi arrived at the Ennio Tardini.
experience at Parma was not a
positive one - for him or the club. The 1995 season brought about a
injuries for Hristo, whilst his team managed only a sixth place finish
A, far below the expectations of their wealthy backers. Hristo found
tightly-marked in a tough, competitive, and more defensively-adept
netted just five times in more than twenty games that year.
the season, other Parma players even
went so far as to organise a boycott against Stoichkov, unhappy as they
his vastly higher wage-packet. The boycott was led by future Chelsea
Gianfranco Zola. In the end, Hristo returned to Barcelona for the start
following season. The years after 1998 saw Stoichkov enter
Veteran-Pro-Tours-World-In-Search-Of-Fat-Contract mode, pitching up in
Arabia, Japan, and the USA. In the lattermost nation, he made a real
impression, leaving behind lasting memories for fans of Chicago Fire,
whom grew to idolise him in much the same way as their Catalan
in the preceding decade.
however, he would also
create some unwelcome memories in the United States, particularly in
to the ill-fated Freddy Llerena, whose leg Stoichkov broke in a game in
something else you should probably
know about Hristo.
was, if truth be told, a bit of a
in a way, that's part of what thrusts
him to the forefront of ones nostalgic recollections. It contributes to
legend, elevating him to the level of cult hero, somehow enhancing the
Stoichkov. It’s just possible that Hristo wouldn’t maintain the same
our memories without what is best referred to as his “streak.”
appears, was part of his nature, and whilst I don't in any way condone
on or off the field, it certainly makes for some interesting anecdotes
relation to El Pistolero.
temper got him into many a
sticky situation - the Bulgarian Cup Final incident being just one
this. Aside from that, his most well-known “moment” saw him stamp on
of a referee whilst playing for Barcelona. This led to a two-month
At an anniversary party, Stoichkov is said to have assaulted a
Svetozar Momchilov, from a US-based Bulgarian newspaper. He seems to
reserved special animosity towards the media, also allegedly attacking
Bulgarian photographer who approached him in a restaurant in Barcelona.
far the worst, however, was the
leg-break involving Freddy Llerena - who was just 18 at the time.
Unhappy at a
decision by the linesman, Hristo took out his frustration on the
Llerena with a vicious tackle. Llerena suffered a compound fracture of
right leg, necessitating the insertion of a metal plate, and resulting
ongoing disability. The young man would go on to sue Stoichkov for a
fee of $5
million. The case was eventually settled out-of-court. This incident
the more puzzling given that the match was a pre-season friendly.
there was nothing to play for; thus, what would drive an experienced
successful veteran undertake such a malicious action?
answer: quite simply, the man's
was a man prone to outbursts of
brutality, both verbal and physical, and as a result, his character
questioned - in footballing terms, at least. Should his temperament,
enhance his legend as theorised above, or should it stain his
memory? That's for the individual to decide.
should also be pointed out, in this
regard, that Hristo was a mentor-figure to many younger players he came
particularly during his time in the US. He was looked up to by many,
reported to have dedicated a large portion of his time to aiding the
development of his various clubs' youth players.
will always be remembered as a
player of the very highest calibre. He was one of the greats of his
and his era. I recall his marauding, electrically-charged runs with
and a large touch of wistful nostalgia. His bad temper has rearranged
into something more acceptable in my rose-tinted spectacles. For this
will always retain a very special place in my heart for Hristo
Stoichkov of Plovdiv, Bulgaria.